Monday, June 16 – Monday, June 23, VA664, Reid’s Gap, Waynesboro – US522, Front Royal (Mile 965.6 since Springer Mountain and only 1219.7 miles to Katahdin)
It’s been about a week since my last post and it’s been a week dominated by the Shenandoah National Park. I’ll return to the park later, as I had to re-trace some ground after my stop in Waynesboro and actually hike from Reid’s Gap to the normal stopping off point for Waynesboro, which is Rockfish Gap. Billy Goat, with his mom and his aunt, had kindly dropped me off and I’d had a lazy Sunday in Waynesboro, gorging myself, before returning to Reid’s Gap last Monday morning.
I’d arranged a price with a cab company the previous evening for the trip and had various quotes of between $35 and $75. When the young guy came to pick me up that Monday, 20 minutes late, he started on about the cost per mile and I stopped him right there and told him it was $35. He thought about it for ten seconds and said “ok” but didn’t speak to me again for the entire journey. I wish I could use that trick on London cabbies.
The day started well, with a delicious bottle of Powerade left in a cooler by a Trail Angel at the start of the Trail, so I knew I was in for a good day. This improved when I ran into Rip Van Winkel, a nice guy (chemistry teacher) I’d met previously at another shelter. Being of roughly the same vintage, we hiked moderately well together at a fairly similar pace and fell into a chatty day.
Before I bumped into RVW, I found a lovely overlook and shot this video.
I’d planned to do about 15 miles, stopping about 5 miles short of Rockfish Gap, at the Paul C Wolfe Shelter. However, as RVW and I were coming down the steep descent from Humpback Mountain, we both heard voices below. More disconcertingly, these voices were many, loud and predominately female. Arriving at the shelter, the entire place had been overrun by a group from the Church of the Latter Day Saints, with three adults and 27 girls between about 13 and 15.
To be fair to the leader of the group, he had told the girls to leave the shelter free but there wasn’t a single tent site to be had. As far as I’m concerned, getting youngsters out on the Trail at a young age is a terrific thing to do, though leaders should consider the impact upon others and limit their numbers accordingly. Consequently, RVW and I moved on, now accompanied by Aussie, a young guy who had already walked 22 miles and was nearly out for the count.
We made Rockfish Gap, where RVW was being picked up by an old friend! while Aussie merely moaned and groaned in the rear. Having already spent a few nights in Waynesboro, I really wanted somewhere cheap and easy to stay the night, as camping in the vicinity wasn’t available. I spotted the Inn at Afton on the top of a hill and RVW’s friend kindly dropped me off. It was dreadful! There was no wifi, no laundry, the wallpaper was literally peeling off and the furniture had some clear and current termite activity. After sitting there for ten minutes, I found an alternative nearby and got a refund. A kindly local guy saw me walking and stopped and asked if I needed a lift. When I told him where, he said “that’s even worse than where you’ve just come from.” Fortunately, there was wifi and laundry, so, for me, it was almost the Ritz compared to the other place, so I stuck with it. However, it’d you ever find yourself at Rockfish Gap, don’t sleep local – go into Waynesboro!!
The following day, I was really looking forward to hitting Shenandoah National Park, though you can see from my first video in the park that I was really underwhelmed by my immediate first impression. It was so darn scruffy and unkempt and very disappointing.
You can see that it was a very hot day and we spent quite a bit of this day in the sunshine, leading to something over an over-reaction of my sweat glands, as I became completely drenched within thirty minutes. Not nice at all. It was also my second consecutive 20 mile day that ended with a lung bursting climb into Blackrock Hut. Indeed, I was anxious to start seeing some of the famed Shenandoah bears and thought one was chasing me up the hill, as I heard a pounding going on nearby. Imagine my disappointment, not least also my concern, when I realized that the pounding was my own heart, beating rapidly and noisily.
The following morning, I headed out from the shelter (referred to as huts in SNP) and up to Blackrock itself for an early climb. This was a gorgeous lookout that allowed me to pause and eat more food, a new and increasing habit of mine, while I shot another little video.
Young Amber, who you saw briefly in that clip, is married to a military man who was deployed seven times to Iraq and Afghanistan. When I asked here if he had got through it all ok, she said that he’d been shot several times but nothing too serious!! The fortitude with which our military families, both in the US and the UK, take their responsibilities, is nothing short of astounding.
My plan for the day was to get to Pinefield Hut, only about 15 miles away, as I’d read of the various waysides that exist in the park. These are basically places where the general public can eat like normal human beings, while hikers can fill their boots with abandon to assuage their ravenous hiker hunger. To reach the Loft Mountain Wayside necessitated a one mile detour (half there, half back), yet I felt it was worth it, along with Amber and a young guy called Gator. It certainly was worth it, so much so that I slept for about an hour after my blow out on the grass outside. Marvelous!
I still hadn’t seen a bear and I was hearing reports of them as if there were a hundred bears to every person in the park; it was starting to get a little embarrassing. Indeed, that morning, after Black Rock, I had stopped for a break when Amber caught up with me and commented that I must attract animals as I pass through. She said, “Did you see the two piles of bear” and here she hesitated, “excrement?” back there, she continued, having decided upon the mot juste and certainly the first, and only time I’d heard it referred to in this way. “A bear was right next to the first pile, only ten feet into the bushes. I’d missed it again, as I did later in camp, when somebody called out that a bear was on the hillside overlooking our camp. I was already in my sleeping bag and simply shrugged. If it wasn’t meant to be, then that was ok.
The following day was just an eleven mile day, as I had to get into Elkton to pick up a food delivery from Diane. On the hike, I stopped to record my second, revised impressions of Shenandoah and broached the subject of yellow blazing, the practice of taking short cuts on the trail and not sticking entirely to the proscribed trail.
I’ve had a chance to re-think this position, as I’ve spoken with a number of the lads and lasses out here and they are all here for the adventure. They may not necessarily be hiking “every flippin’ inch” like yours truly, but they are certainly hiking their own hike, many of them with issues that they need to resolve. While it wouldn’t work for me, I can see that they don’t stop overnight in motels as much as I do, so they are likely having it even tougher than I am. So my revised view of the Shenandoah’s remains, but I’m revising my view of yellow blazers. Just hike your own hike and don’t pay attention to what others want to do. After all, it is the journey and not the destination that counts.
In Elkton, I also hoped to be able to catch the England v Uruguay World Cup game, though had no idea how I could achieve this latter objective. Luckily, I hitched a ride from a friendly truck driver and he dropped me right by a Mexican restaurant, which is a big fave with hikers. Filling my face with fajitas, guacamole, tacos, nachos, all washed down with a couple of beers, I got into a conversation with a young waiter who liked football (soccer) and told him that I had an iPad and could watch the game on it if I could have access to wifi somewhere. He asked his boss and I was set up, with a complimentary beer, with more nachos and salsa, to watch the game. Even with this kind gesture, England still lost and exited the World Cup. Again!!
It was now too late to return to the trail, so I found a cheap little motel and left my return till morning.
The motel owner shuttled me back to the trailhead the following morning at 7am, along with a couple of section hikers. It was a gorgeous, crisp day and I hadn’t been hiking for more than about 30 minutes when I saw and heard a disturbance off to the right in the trees. I could see a bear, about twenty five feet up in the tree and starting to move down. I quickly got my camera out and took a lousy still picture, then turned the video on. Imagine my delight when not one, but four bears jumped out of the tree in quick succession and ran further into the undergrowth.
You’ll notice that old big-mouth here doesn’t say anything at all on this particular video; I was an exhilarating combination of mesmerized and scared at the same time. This turned out to be quite the morning, as about twenty minutes later, I ran into a deer on the trail (below), then, when filling my water bottle at a stream, another bear, a big beast, simply emerged from the bushes only twenty yards ahead of me on the trail, didn’t notice me and waddled off down the trail before turning off. This was my clearest encounter and I couldn’t get to my camera, as my hands were wet.
I was having a terrific time and decided to stop and have a peaceful lunch at Bearfence Hut, only to be joined by a very friendly deer who had no objection to being filmed. There is good and bad about this as deers are carriers of deer ticks, possibly the most dangerous animal on the entire Appalachian Trail. These little ticks embed themselves in your skin and can transmit Lyme disease unless you remove them within about a day. Regularly checking yourself for these little blighters (ticks, not deer) is one of my new daily tasks, having found about four or five in Shenandoah.
You can tell I was happy about the day’ event, as I even stopped in front of another view to talk about it later in the day.
I had decided to camp at Big Meadows Campsite and turned up there as several of my new hiking buddies, Nobody, Lumberjack, Doctor, Tomahawk and a few others were leaving the campsite after a shower and laundry. I luckily ran into the camp host, Eileen, and her husband and she seemed to take a liking to the British accent, offering me a free camp spot on her own site. Perfect! The next morning, she came out of the huge RV that they share and offered me coffee, a banana and even some Off, to keep the ticks at bay. Being a Brit in the states is such a bonus sometimes!
I planned a 19 mile day on Saturday, ignoring Luray, a regular stopping point, and hiking on to Pass Mountain Hut. Leaving the campground, however, we got the first sign that we were in for a change of weather, with cloud drifting into the valley below us. It was a lovely sight, though I knew that the day was going to get a little more difficult.
I had yet another restaurant in mind, Skyland, and I was put in the corner when I arrived there. Nobody really wants to sit near us when we are hiking and I’m similarly happy with the arrangement. After all, who wants to be the source of a bit of nose sniffing halfway through a meal? We smell and we know it; why subject others to it if we can be tucked away? Mind you, once seated, they certainly didn’t mind taking my money and I woofed down some chowder, a huge burger and their specialty, a baked ice cream pie. This must have come in at about 2500 calories, which pretty much allowed me to breeze through the afternoon with my new found power. It really is a case of calories in and calories out and Shenandoah is certainly helping out with the calories in.
Bear number six became apparent when I caught up with Lumberjack, who was hanging out on the trail with no particular plan to move forward. He’d seen a bear in his path and the bear, similarly, had no particular plan to get out of Lumberjack’s way. Of course, I pulled out the camera to record this stand off.
At this point, the rain that had threatened had started and I was soaked to the skin, though there was no real alternative to simply putting in the miles until camp. Fortunately, the rain had subsided quite a bit when I got to camp and I was able to set up, albeit in rather damp conditions. The dampness pervades everything and it can be a miserable task to try to warm up and find something dry to wear. So far, we’ve been extraordinarily lucky with the weather. Quite what people do with, say ten days of consecutive rain, I really can’t imagine.
I knew that I’d like to dry off in Front Royal but that I couldn’t attempt to do it in one day, as it was 26 miles ahead and, with the way in which the huts are set up, two thirteen mile days beckoned. The first took me, as well as the little group I mentioned earlier, to yet another wayside, though I shot this great view while on a stop with Nobody. The wind was up and it would rain later, but it was a gorgeous morning.
At the wayside, we all charged our phones and basically hung out and were going in and out of the shop grazing, with burgers, candy bars, milkshakes (I had two) and fries. The camaraderie between the hikers is wonderfully friendly and, even though we all look like we need a wash, and we always do, all the visitors and bikers would stop and chat and were genuinely interested in our adventure.
Leaving the others behind, as I wanted to get to the shelter before the threatened rain, I ran into yet another bear, my seventh, up a tree. I filmed it but you can hardly see him, so it’s not included here.
Another soggy night and yet another bad choice by me for a site to pitch my tent, left me with a fairly sleepless night and I got up this morning very pleased with my choice to spend the night out of the woods. It was an easy 13 miles today, though I saw yet another bear shoot out of the undergrowth and simply cross the path in front of me.
It has been a joy to see these bears and my initial fears have been entirely removed by the clear indication that they are even more frightened of me than I am of them. Whatever I may have written previously, when I may have seemed a bit blasé, I have been bloody desperate to see a bear and now my count is eight in four days. They are stupendous creatures and I feel honored to have had the chance to see them on their turf, and not mine.
So the Shenandoah’s are now behind me and my last impression was that it was great to see the bears, but that the green tunnel was too prevalent and the best views to be had are often on Skyline Drive. It is certainly a magnificent park and one that I’m glad I’ve walked, though you can see in the video that I nearly got lost.